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Founder’s Choice
4,074 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Anaconda [An excerpt from the novel]

by Jerry Bumpus

Vera had been quiet for a long time. She was on her fifth drink and was beginning to get a little maudlin. E.L. had started drinking again, but much slower than before. McCaferty kept up his steady pace with the beer.

The girl looked sternly at McCaferty again. “Why don’t you go home. Can’t you see you’re not wanted?” McCaferty looked down sadly at his half-empty beer bottle. E.L. said nothing, tired of talk.

“My child, I have no home to go to,” McCaferty said. He looked at her. There was no pity in her stare. “I sold my loving wife for a train ticket years ago and packed up my three children to hock along the way. And now I’m wealthy but I don’t have a place to spend my money and nobody to spend it with, except you two carefree young people.”

“Bullshit,” Vera said, but McCaferty could tell he had interested her because she did not look away.

“Yes, when I was only 21 I decided the life on the farm was not the life for me. My wife was always telling me that I thought more of drink than I did of her, until finally she convinced me and I sold her for 50 dollars to a dealer in white slaves. This was a long time ago, when 50 dollars was a lot of money.” He paused for effect with a faraway expression on his face. Vera said, “Bullshit,” again, but with less disdain than before, as if she might want him to continue.

“And my three charming little girls and my trunk and I rode the train to San Francisco, city of the Golden Gate, where the Chinee women live. There I changed my way of living, gave up the habits of a decent husband, father, and provider, and I devoted my waking hours to hellraising.” He leaned forward to fix them with a steady, bland pause. They were looking at him. “And it was not long before I had drunk up nearly all my 50 dollars and I had to ask my three charming daughters which wanted to be the first to go. A difficult decision to make, but Elsie volunteered, adventuress that she was, and I sold her to a German ship captain for 300 marks—what was then something like 100 dollars. Twice as much as I had got for my lovely wife. But that’s the way it is out at the West Coast.”

“I was out there once,” Vera said slowly, as if testing him with a lie.

“Then you know jus what I mean. Well, 100 dollars and one daughter less to buy milk for, I was again ready for the Chinee women and Puerto Rican rum. I was livin high on the hog. Every night I’d go to a different fancy night club, buy drinks around for everyone in the place and those passing by on the sidewalk out front. In those days they had wooden sidewalks. And naturally at that rate the 100 dollars from dear Elsie lasted me only two months and then I was down and out again, the scorn of all those for whom I’d boughten Puerto Rican rum. All good-time Charlies. Know what I mean?”

E.L. nodded his head solemnly.

“But I looked at it this way—I owed it to them.” Vera and E.L. continued to look at him. “They were jus poor people who never had a good time, too stingy to buy their own drinks,so it was up to some good Samaritan soul to provide for them. And I was the good Samaritan. So another daughter had to go. This time it was the youngest, Eustacia. She was a pretty little girl of three years with golden hair and a smile that sent the clouds into fits of laughter. But I knew—don’t cry,” he said quickly to Vera who hung her head from too much drink, “—but I knew that I could never provide the kind of life she deserved, since I was something of a carefree, ne’er-do-well sort of person, and I knew that no matter what fate befell her, she would still have that same cherubic smile on her face, that same gleam of inner happiness in her eye.

“Ah, she was a dear.” He leaned back to relish her memory. “So I sold her to a prince or a shah, I can’t recall which, and the last I heard from her, many years ago, she was married to an Egyptian prince and was one of a harem of 600 wives, of all nationalities. The last word I heard from her was a letter of thanks. Well, I got the fantastic sum of 200 dollars for little Eustacia and it was the same old routine all over again, having to pay for the happiness of others while I sat and brooded, lonely, in a corner thinking of all the cheap whiskey and rum I had drunk and how much there was yet to drink. Ah, back then I was quite a man. In San Francisco there used to be the drinking marathons. Sometimes as many as 200 hard-drinking men would enter a contest, putting up something like 50 dollars just to get a chance to out-drink the other men and win the big prize money.”

“And you won, I suppose,” Vera said.

“I’ve never been the same since. I think it was that terrible two weeks of steady drinking that was the turning point of my life. Ever since that fateful event I’ve never completely regained my strength. Well, that drinking marathon lasted two weeks. The rules were you had to keep the pace of the fastest drinker and if someone drank a quart in an hour, everybody else had to drink a quart to keep in the running. The event was held in the huge Cow Palace out there. Millions of people from all over the world came to see the contest. Well, as you could imagine with a rule like that the contenders thinned out pretty quick. After just three hours of drinking there were only 150 left. One of those who had fallen out, as it were, went to sleep and slept three weeks straight through before his wife discovered he wasn’t asleep but dead. Already embalmed. After the first day the contenders were down to 25 in number. That night drinking stopped. We all had to sleep on army cots there in front of those millions of people. Some of the drinkers used medical treatments to keep them in shape for competition, raw eggs and sheep’s milk, milkweed stew, black coffee and every other outlandish thing you could think of. But not me. And that’s why I won. The others didn’t drop out because of the whiskey so much as it was from the way they punished their stomachs with those home remedies. During that two weeks I ate nothing at night except spare ribs and brown gravy and drank nothing but sassafras tea.”

“God,” Vera said. E.L. listened sternly.

“Well, the drinking the second day was slow until I took the lead and began to set a faster pace. Ten men dropped out after the first hour. That left jus 15 men, counting yours truly. But those 14 I was drinkin against were truly drinkers. Not one of them said a foolish word. We sat around a huge table with the whiskey quarts out there in the middle with a bright spotlight on us with the eyes of all those who had paid two and three dollars a ticket for a seat, bringing box lunches and bedrolls to see the best drinkers of the world compete. I remember one of those final 14 was from Tibet. He said he’d learned to drink on a fermented stone water made from grinding up granite and adding milk so it’d ferment. He was the second best drinker, next to me.

“After the first week we were just five in number. The betting was hot and heavy. I remember one of the Rockefellers was there and he bet I think it was 500,000 on the nose on me. It was all the cash he had at the time and the amount he won gave him the start that fine eastern family has built into a fortune. All that, built on my carefree younger days’ impetuosity and eagerness for havin fun. The five of us were pretty grim about it. We’d stopped joking each other and spent our waking hours concentrating on the drinking, spending our sleeping hours dreaming about the most dreadful things, as you can imagine.

“After 11 days there was only that fellow from Tibet and me. We sat opposite each other and matched each other drink for drink. I remember he had a long, crooked nose and every time he took a drink it’d wrinkle up and vapor fumes issued from his nostrils, because by then the whiskey we were drinking was pretty cheap stuff, having drunk up nearly all the better brands the city could provide.”

“And this is supposed to be the truth?” Vera asked.

“I have never lied about anything important in my life,” McCaferty answered her. “Well, this Tibetan and me were grim as death about it, wanting that 10,000 dollars prize money. Runner-ups got nothin—winner take all. I was still setting the pace, but I felt pretty sick, having run out of sassafras tea to settle my stomach at night. I figured the battle was at the point where I had to make a move to either wipe him out or wipe out myself, elsewise we were going to kill off each other, so I picked up this full quart bottle, and at that stage of the competition it was heavy as a ton, and I put it to my lips and with my eyes closed and seeing the angels flapping their wings descending to fetch me to my heavenly rest, I drained every last drop of the vile stuff. The Tibetan blinked his eyes at me, I was told later, because though I was standing and bowing to the thunderous applause I received from the ever-increasing audience, I couldn’t think too clear and I don’t remember much at all of my moment of triumph. Well the Tibetan picked up the nearest quart bottle and stood and commenced to drain his as well. Then he stared back at me with his nose twitching like a rabbit’s.

“I thought for sure I’d met my match in this wild man from Tibet until he gave me this silly grin, like he’d just seen a gnat’s pecker, and he keeled over. It took him a year to recover, and as I say I ain’t felt the same since.”

“And you won?” Vera said.

“I read about it later,” McCaferty said.

“What’d you do with the prize money?” E.L. asked.

“Well before I could get my wits about me I was talked into giving it to charity. I broke my health and squandered my reward on charity. And there you got the sad story of my greatest adventure in life—ruined by a moment of weakness. Now I’m doomed to walk the earth telling my story to anybody who’ll listen.”

“It sure is a sad story,” Vera said.

“The truth is always sad, my dear,” McCaferty said, feeling for a moment as if he were about to cry.

They were silent a long time, studying the cluttered table before them.

“What happened to the other daughter?” Vera asked. “You said you had three and you sold two of them.”

“The third one, Karanina, eloped with a one-armed cowboy and became the celebrated Child Bride of Galveston, Texas. I’m sure you’ve heard of her.” They both nodded their heads slowly.

“Oh I could tell you things that’d make you shout with amazement,” McCaferty said mournfully.

But the waitress was at their table again and drinks were ordered round again. E.L. asked McCaferty if he would like a drink of whiskey. “No, E.L., ever since that ordeal in San Francisco I’ve left off my hard liquor.”

Vera was now almost friendly to him, softer, now that he had shared his suffering with her as she had bared her suffering to him while talking to E.L. McCaferty did not feel any remorse for making them listen to his story, for he was sure there were many parts of it true, somewhere.

There was another strip tease, but a different girl did this dance, an older woman who, although she was not as pretty as Vera, knew better how to use the fat of her body.

It was nearly two a.m. when E.L. said he was ready to go. He was drunk again, having borrowed some money from Vera, who was also quite drunk. McCaferty was pleasantly drunk. The tavern was beginning to empty.

“Why don’t you come home with us?” Vera asked McCaferty. Coming from her, the offer surprised him.

“Yeah, Mack. You don’t have any place to go, do you?” E.L. asked.

“I’d be in the way and you don’t know me well enough to take me home....”

“Aw go to hell,” E.L. said loudly. “If we didn’t want you to, we wouldn’t ask you, would we, huh?”

“All right, don’t get sore.”

They decided to take E.L.’s car and put Vera’s behind the tavern. Vera had on high-heels and nearly fell several times in the gravel of the parking lot. She walked between them and they all laughed and McCaferty felt in the same moment both young and older than he was.

They all three got in the front seat of the little Chevrolet. E.L. convinced them he had driven as many miles drunk as he had sober and could drive a car from the Frolic Club to Benton blindfolded. But they were silent on the drive to Benton, watching the road. E.L. concentrated hard on the apparently flat surface of the highway ahead. It seemed to be merely a motion picture on the windshield! It was as if they were not moving but watching a film on the windshield. The wind roaring in the open windows of the car, for they were driving fast, did not give them a feeling of movement—it gave McCaferty a remote lost feeling, as if he were at sea, or on a high cliff and the wind was a storm that did not blow against him but howled a mournful story that he overheard. It was grim, and because he was drunk he felt a premonition of something sinister coming; the wind always seemed to talk to him of his death.

E.L. regularly drove off onto the shoulder of the road but managed each time to get the car back onto the pavement. It was a frightening trip for Vera, McCaferty could tell, for when E.L. would drive off the road she leaned back in the seat, her body stiff.

At last they reached Benton. The city square, around the two-story, limestone county courthouse, was deserted. The street lights gave the small town a ghostly, gray, wet look. This is Benton, he thought, and was for a moment very sober and tense. He wondered if E.L. and Vera felt the same animal pang he felt. Vera lit a cigarette and leaned back against the seat.

McCaferty said, “From the way you two have been talkin I think that house’s crowded enough without me comin along too. Whyn’t you jus let me out here somewhere and I’ll—”

“You shut up,” E.L. said. McCaferty sensed that E.L. felt the same coldness; but what the “coldness” was McCaferty could not tell. He was drunk, he knew that, and that explained a great deal about his premonitions.

Vera said, “The house’s real big and there’s room for 15, 20 people.”

“I still don’t have any business—”

“We need you to fix coffee,” E.L. said.

The house was about three blocks from the city square. It was a large, old house, a wooden frame building, two-story, the kind the rich built 50 years ago in small midwestem towns. There were no lights in the windows of the house. E.L. parked the car in the street in front of the house, and they got out and walked up the sidewalk to the porch.

E.L. said quietly, “My wife sleeps upstairs,” pointing to a second-floor window, “in that room there. We got plenty room in the house.”

“This’s a pretty old house,” McCaferty said.

“It’s my wife’s house,” E.L. said.

There were a few metal lawn chairs on the long front porch and two wooden rocking chairs. The boards of the porch were old and soft and creaked as the three of them slowly and carefully crossed the porch. The only light on the porch came from a street lamp up the street. E.L.’s face was in the shadows of one of the posts on the porch; looking at E.L., McCaferty forgot what the young man looked like. “Let’s go on in,” Vera said. They went in quietly, E.L. stumbling against a table invisible in the dark, old-smelling room. The floor in the large living room creaked as did the floor of the long dining room. They walked single file, slowly, E.L. leading the way. In the kitchen E.L. turned on a light.

McCaferty was surprised. He did not know exactly what he had expected, but the squat, old stove in the corner of the kitchen, the gray tile sink with the cast-iron pump, the wooden ice box, the concrete floor, all this surprised him. He thought about the rest of the house and knew immediately the other dark rooms they had passed through were also like this.

E.L. pointed to the cook stove. “You know how to operate one of these things?”

“Yes,” McCaferty said.

He got some wood out of the box beside the stove and started a fire. Vera put coffee in a pot of water and they sat down at the large square table in the center of the room to wait for the coffee. McCaferty looked at the tablecloth. The cloth was one tourists buy in a state or country they visit. This one had the minerals, resources, scenic sights, and pictures of famous people from the state of Illinois. There was a large bronze-brown picture of Lincoln in the corner of the cloth. McCaferty stared at the tablecloth while Vera and E.L. smoked cigarettes and stared silently at the high ceiling.

“That means my wife’s been to Illinois,” E.L. said flatly.

McCaferty looked at the young man; E.L.’s face was expressionless. “She’ll talk your arm off about Chicago. And she’s great on Effingham. Don’t ask her about Cairo, it’ll embarrass her. She’s never been there.”

“Adaline’s a little—” Vera tapped the side of her head with her finger and McCaferty nodded slowly, though he didn’t understand.

“She fell down once when she was a little girl and she’s never been the same since,” E.L. said grimly, then looked into McCaferty’s eyes and smiled sheepishly. “She fell out of a barn loft I think. Right on her head.”

“That’s too bad,” McCaferty said.

“No it ain’t,” E.L. said. “She likes it this way. She’s happy. You stay around tomorrow and you’ll see her and you’ll see what I mean. She’s happy as hell. Have her tell you bout Jimmy Rogers. She knew him back when he was singin on the radio, long time ago.”

“She’d be okay if she wasn’t so goddamn crazy,” Vera said.

“No she wouldn.” E.L. leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table, philosophically wrinkling his brow and squinting his eyes. “If she had all her marbles nobody could stand her. She’s better off this way. And she’s happy, too.”

“She this way when you married her?”

E.L. nodded his head slowly, not looking at McCaferty. “I thought I could maybe help her. But it jus didn work out, Mack.”

They were quiet again, thinking about E.L.’s wife, Adaline. Soon the coffee boiled and Vera got up from the table to get cups.

E.L. leaned his head forward. “What really caused it was she was married once before and had a little girl that got killed and she jus never got over it. That was a long time ago and she jus never got over it.”

McCaferty mumbled, “The loss of one’s children is indeed tragic,” too low for E.L. to hear. His mind was beginning to clear and he remembered what E.L. had said, and it did not seem quite natural to him that E.L. would marry the woman to see if he could “help” her. But he remembered that E.L. was still drunk. The young man now sat slumped back in his chair, his chin down on his chest, his red-rimmed eyes staring bleakly at the map of Illinois on the tablecloth. Vera poured the coffee and sat down and the three of them sat watching the cups steaming. The oppression of fatigue and the silently crackling, slow fire of consuming time made them silent. McCaferty rolled himself a cigarette. They could hear nothing but the occasional popping of the fire inside the cookstove. Now and then a board in the floor or one of the walls would pop, restless in an inanimate way from the endless immobility of the old house. The old place reminded McCaferty that he was sixty-eight.

They sat drinking coffee for an hour, until abour four o’clock. E.L. did most of the talking, which was not much. McCaferty did not say five words. Then Vera cleared off the table and said it was time to go to bed. She and E.L. decided to be very quiet and sleep in the second bedroom on the second floor that was at the far end of the house from where E.L.’s wife slept. McCaferty was to sleep on the sofa in the living room.

They all made final trips to the toilet on the screened-in back porch and then turned out the light in the kitchen. Dawn was growing. It did not seem to McCaferty that only one day had passed since he stood on the bank of the Wabash River and watched dawn change the color of the water from black to gray.

“What about when your wife wakes up?” McCaferty asked E.L.

“We’ll lock the door of our room. She won’t bother you. She’ll think you’re some important oil man.”

“I don’t look very important.”

“She thinks everbody that comes here’s important.”

Then Vera and E.L. went upstairs to the bedroom, and he heard them walking slowly on the creaking floor. He went into the living room and sat down on the sofa. The room was gray with a weak eerie light that did not seem to come in the white-lace curtained windows, but seemed to either rise from the thin rug on the floor, or emanate from the yellow papered walls. The room and this time of night were depressing, and the burden of McCaferty’s life was his sensitivity and susceptibility to depression.

McCaferty thought about E.L. and Vera. He would sleep a while in the living room, get up when E.L.’s wife came down, talk to her a while, maybe get something to eat for breakfast, and then leave. He would go back to Spring Garden, but he had plenty of time and there was no need to worry about when he would leave. That was one of the advantages of being on the bum.

He looked at one of the pictures hanging on the walls of the room. The frames of the pictures were dark, thick, baroquely carved, the kind popular at the turn of the century. The picture he looked at showed a lake at either sundown or sunup surrounded by mountains; as day approached and the room became better lighted the old man could see the details of the picture. He distinguished a large stag at one side of the lake, at one side of the picture, and at the other side of the picture, at the other side of the lake, was an Indian in a canoe. The stag and the Indian were looking at each other.

McCaferty slipped his feet out of his shoes and lay down on the hard, faded-gray sofa and closed his eyes. He was very tired. He was glad he had drunk beer instead of whiskey.


—Excerpted from the first chapter of the novel, Anaconda (December Magazine and Publishing, 1962); appears here with author’s permission

SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Jerry Bumpus

is the author of two novels, both of which were published by December Magazine and Publishing: The Happy Convent (1989) and Anaconda (1967); and five collections of short stories: The Civilized Tribes: New and Selected Stories (University of Akron Press, Technology and the Environment Series, 1995), Dawn of the Flying Pigs (Carpenter Press, 1992), Heroes and Villains (Fiction Collective Two, 1986), Special Offer (Carpenter Press, 1981), and Things in Place (Fiction Collective Two, G. Braziller, 1975).

(As an interesting side-note: Novelist, editor, and publisher Curt Johnson referred to Bumpus’s novel Anaconda as “outlaw literature,” the kind that suited his personal taste, and he published the book in 1967 after it had been rejected by commercial publishing houses. The founding editor of December Magazine had passed the reins in 1958 to Johnson, who edited the magazine for several decades. From 1962 to 2008, operating from his home in the Chicago suburbs, he also published more than 30 books under the December Press imprint, including in 1989 the second novel by Bumpus, The Happy Convent.)

In a career that spans 50 years, Bumpus has placed more than 120 of his stories in such notable venues as Epoch, Esquire, Fiction International, Kansas Quarterly, Shenandoah, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The Vagabond Anthology, among others. In its Issue 51 in 1975, The Transatlantic Review published his story “The Idols of Afternoon,” which won the O. Henry Prize the following year; and his story, “How It Will Be,” appears in Volume Two of the Pushcart anthology (1977-78 edition).

He holds a BA in English from the University of Missouri and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa, where he studied under poet Donald Justice and novelist Vance Bourjaily, the latter of whom in the 1970s dubbed Bumpus “king of the underground writers.” Bumpus is Professor Emeritus of English at San Diego State University, where he taught creative writing for 25 years (1971-1996), including in the MFA Program. Born in 1937 in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, he turns 81 in January.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury